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Part 3 (of 3): Mysticism


So by now, I have probably lost a lot of you. If you’ve stuck in there with me, good for you, go give yourself a click and a chocolate chip cookie (after you’re done reading this last blog, of course). I could actually probably go on about this issue, but I think I’ve caused enough trouble for one week, so I will stop with this. The last issue I want to touch on is more a matter of personal pride and semantics than actual dog training, so I apologize in advance if this gets harsh. I don’t mean to go on the attack, but my pride has been wounded, so if you don’t agree with me, at least try to have a little pity for my bruised ego.

As a rule, I have always shied away from anything that I don’t understand and can’t be properly explained to me. When I can’t get a clear answer or a clear definition, I typically choose to see the point as moot. I have always been of the mind that if you don’t understand your position, then you can’t explain it. If you can’t explain it, no one else is going to understand it, and you certainly aren’t going to be able to understand anyone else’s point of view.

Not everyone is like me. A lot of people like the mystery shroud and the feeling of the unknown. I actually think I used to as well. When I was younger, I had a friend who told me that there was a quality about me which made me so ephemeral that she sometimes thought that if she reached out, she would be able to put her hand right through me. I was very wild, very free and very damaged, so I spent a lot of time hiding the pain behind a mask of carelessness. Over the years, I have spent a considerable amount of time trying to, not quash that quality, but contain it so that I am more capable of making myself sound convincing in the real world, making myself more solid, so to speak. I have moved out of the realm of childhood fairytales and magic and into the realm of realism and logic. As I have made this transition in my own life, I have become acutely aware of those who haven’t, and also of those who use their ephemeral quality not only to bend language, but to bend the truth to suit their own devices.

I heartily believe that Cesar Millan does this, to his great success. Some would be crass and call it manipulative, but I’m not going to do say that. I would say that he is capturing his ephemeral quality, applying it to his dog training methods, and making a ton of money. It’s a skill, we all have skills, he’s using his to be successful, and I don’t have any qualms with that. I think that’s one of the things that make this country great.

But for me, I don’t like what he has done. I don’t understand it, and I think that when you break it down, it is actually kind of insulting.

Let me start with the part that I don’t understand and move onto the part that just, quite frankly, pisses me off.

According to Cesar, you are to have “calm, assertive energy” when training your dog. I remember hearing that phrase for the first time and being stunned. I stared at the TV for a while and was awed. What a beautiful phrase that made absolutely no sense. I sat there and heard it repeated several dozen times and started to doubt myself. Was I really going to be shown up by someone who was speaking English as a second language? Did I really not know what assertive meant, or was my definition of calm off?

Of course, I did what most English majors with a little bit of beaten pride will do, I went to the books. I dug out my dictionary and sat down with it. Okay, my definition of calm was definitely correct (whew, how embarrassing would that have been?). Calm, as an adjective (as in, calm energy) means: “Not showing or feeling nervousness, anger or other emotions” (emphasis added). Some acceptable synonyms include the words “bland” “cool” “harmonious” “mild” “restful” and “waveless”. Antonyms include words like “excited” “fierce” “frenzied” “rough” “violent” and “wild”.

Okay, so maybe I was wrong, and I didn’t know what assertive meant, after all. Maybe that was the point that I missed on the SATs…I flipped to assertive and found this: “Having or showing a confident and forceful personality” also “aggressively self-assured”. Some acceptable synonyms include “assured” “confident” “domineering” “forceful” and “sure”. Antonyms include works “diffident” “quiet” and “shy”. And aggressive? What does it mean to be aggressive, actually? According to the dictionary it is to be: “Ready or likely to attack or confront”. Some synonyms include “attacking” “assailing” “disruptive” “invading” and “threatening”. The most common antonym for aggressive? You guessed it – “calm”.

So you’ll see the reason for my dismay and confusion when I saw these words grouped together in a neat little phrase that was supposed to convey your “energy” (another word that has some ephemeral, magic quality to it that I don’t quite understand, but I imagine correlates to the emotion you are supposed to capture when training with your dog, even though you are supposed to be calm and thus “not showing emotion”).

Let me get this straight, I thought, when I’m training my dog, I’m supposed to be both calm and aggressive, when they are, in fact, antonyms? How can I do opposite things at once? How confusing. If I’m confused, I’m most likely going to get my dog confused and mixed signals are bad enough when you are of the same species and speaking the same language, I can only imagine how frustrating that must be for the human/dog relationship.

All right, well, maybe he’ll explain it to me, how to be both of these things at once. So I continued watching, all night. It was a marathon night on Animal Planet, back when I had cable. But I heard no answer, no definition, no explanation to come with the mysterious phrase. It was as if I was just supposed to know what that meant. And suddenly, I understood why Cesar Millan’s show came with a warning not to try these methods at home without the help of a professional. Screw possibly injuring my dog, these complicated phrases were putting me at a serious risk of injuring my brain!

Semantics aside, however, what really makes me mad about the mysticism shroud cloaking Cesar Millan is that he makes me feel like I have no right to own dogs, let alone train them. I mean, how am I, as a dog owner, supposed to accomplish anything without the help of a professional, if I can’t even watch his show and try the techniques he uses at home? And furthermore, what if I don’t have the special “energy” he is talking about – I mean, I don’t even understand what it means, how am I supposed to know if I have it?

And if I don’t have it, does that mean that I can’t possibly train my dog? What’s the point of having a dog then? At this point in my inner monologue, I had a picture in my mind. There I was, I’d just brought home an eight week old puppy and plopped him down on the floor. He looked up at me, and I froze. What the hell am I supposed to do with this thing? Oh, well, sorry little guy, I don’t think I have the right energy to be a dog owner after all. I’m never going to be able to teach you not to pee on the carpet or chew on the furniture or any of that, because I don’t have the right “energy”. Off to the pound with you.

This is where Cesar Millan really pisses me off. I mean, how dare you try to tell me I need to have some kind of special energy or that I need to be different than how I am to train my dog? What kind of nonsense is that? I have loved animals all my life, I have loved every dog that has ever been in my life, and I like to think that they loved me too. But now you’re telling me that I maybe don’t have the right kind of energy to be a proper dog owner? Bullshit.

Enter the beauty of clicker training. As Patricia McConnell says in her book For the Love of a Dog, positive reinforcement training requires no physical abilities, it requires no experience, and it requires no semi-mythical, contradictory, ying and yang “energies”. It is, unfortunately, as she says, much more mundane than that. It does require many skills that you may not have, but that you can develop, and you can do all of that on your own, without the help of a “professional” (i.e. someone who is going to take your money to spew this shroud-covered, contradictory turn of phrase out at you and leave you more confused than you probably were to begin with).

Clicker training and positive reinforcement training do require work, time and effort. They require you to spend a lot of time simply watching your dog. They require you to take a leap of faith (or to trust in the science that is out there) and believe that your dog has emotions, maybe not as complex as yours, but that they do have them, and you need to respect that. They require you to accept your dog as a partner, and not a working beast of burden. They require the same amount of physical exercise as Cesar Millan recommends (one of his better points, actually, since there are so many morbidly obese dogs in this country, though that phrase “exercise, discipline, affection” is another issue I have), but they also require a great deal more mental exercise (as in, they require mental exercise). Sometimes, positive reinforcement training and clicker training require a little more expense, because you need to buy treats and perhaps puzzle games. Like traditional methods, they sometimes (though not always) require the expense of hiring a “professional” or purchasing a book or DVD, so that you can better understand and visualize the techniques and try them at home. But they are easily understandable and relatable. In fact, to the severe detriment of their businesses, every single positive reinforcement trainer I have worked with has continued to work with me at no cost. I can call them whenever I choose, send emails and texts, and they will give me their advice and their help for free, because they don’t want me to be confused and accidentally confuse the dog, or put too much on the dog too soon. They want me to understand completely, and if I don’t, they encourage me to ask questions, because they want me to ask myself questions when I am training with my dog.

At the end of the day, it’s up to you to make your own choice. I think I have offered full disclosure here for everyone to know what mine has been. But before you decide what method is right for you and your best friend, maybe you should ask yourself this question – do you want a friend, or do you want a subordinate?